I have heard so many stories from the people that I have met as a hospice volunteer. I meet others through a small business that I run where I fill in the gaps for people when they need help. I have met some interesting people along the way. People always have a personal reason for becoming a hospice volunteer. It isn’t the PTA, you don’t do it for your kids.
I became interested in hospice in my late 20s. My aunt was dying of metastatic breast cancer and she appointed me as executrix of her estate. It was an incredible experience because my aunt was a highly spiritual and deeply religious woman. She was young, not even 60 and she met death face on with a grace and dignity that eludes me on a daily basis. We had many open discussions during her final year and it made me wonder what it was like to know you were dying within days, weeks or months? I started to worry that the dying person may not have anyone they felt they could talk to….sometimes the people closest to us are the hardest ones to talk to when life is near the end.
Some people are so close to the dying person that it is too emotionally charged for them to have a coherent conversation. Then again, some can’t communicate when things are great. Toss in a terminal illness and some just go mute or into complete denial. The surviving family and friends generally have people to talk to but the dying person….who do they have? I decided that I wanted to be that person.
So finally 10 years after the seed was planted I decided to become a hospice volunteer through a local hospital. My kids were still young but the preschool hours and some kind friends provided enough kid free time for me to attend the Medicare required training. I had been a stay at home mom for 5 years at this point and it was great to check off a personal goal that was independent of my family.
The hospital I volunteer for has a training coordinator we will call her Kay. When a hospice volunteer is requested, Kay sends out an email to a group of hospice volunteers telling us a little bit about the situation and what day/time a volunteer is needed. Then a volunteer will ‘reply all’ that they can do it and Kay sends a secure email to that individual. The volunteer then has the information to contact the family and the visit is scheduled. Sadly we always have to check in the day of the visit to make sure the patient hasn’t passed, it happens.
A couple of years ago I received such a call from the wife of a man that I was supposed to stay with the next day. Sadly her husband had passed a few hours before she called me. I find it remarkable that she would have the presence of mind to even think of me but she did. We chatted for a few minutes and she mentioned that she lied to her daughter and told her that a friend was staying with her that night because she did not want to inconvenience her. I never met that woman in person but I think of her often.
That’s how it is with hospice work. You meet people at this most intense time in their life. Sometimes it is scary and awkward and uncomfortable and other times it is filled with grace, dignity and love. You never know what you are walking into when you arrive at someone’s home. Sometimes the family is close and open and other times you can feel tension in the air from countless family fights and relatives being forced in a room with someone they haven’t spoken to in decades. I go in knowing that these people have an entire lifetime of memories, emotions and conflicts and I am not there to try to sort that out. I am there for two reasons: to be there for the patient in whatever capacity they need and to give the caregiver a break.
They, the patients, always leave me behind at some point. Sometimes they hang on well past the point that anyone would have thought they could. Other times they go suddenly….even though they were on hospice, you are shocked….they were a fighter and you thought you had more time. Most of the time though I know when our last visit has occurred. More times than not, I will get an extra squeeze of their hand, a knowing look and an extra and most sincere thank you. And I leave knowing I will not see them again.
Though they are gone, they are not forgotten. Many tell me their stories some are funny, others are heart breaking and I hold onto those stories and take them with me. That is our gift to each other.